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News Threatened amphibian receives a helping hand

Eastern Spadefoot introduced to Southwick WMA.
11/30/2017
  • Division of Fisheries and Wildlife
Two Eastern Spadefoot in a person's hand.

The Eastern Spadefoot is a big-headed relative of toads with distinct cat-like eyes. It’s also listed as Threatened under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act due to habitat loss and the high number of individuals killed each year while crossing roads. MassWildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program—with support from the Massachusetts Outdoor Heritage Foundation and its partnership with Sanofi Genzyme—initiated a project to help this amphibian increase its chances of survival in the Connecticut River Valley, where it is especially at risk.

Southwick Wildlife Management Area (WMA) was selected for establishing a new population of Eastern Spadefoot; however, a breeding pool had to be built at the site. In 2015, MassWildlife and its partners (Bristol County Agricultural High School, Westfield State University, and Southwick Department of Public Works) created three such pools. Water levels, vegetation, and local amphibians’ use were then monitored to confirm the pools would work well for spadefoots. MassWildlife biologists and a volunteer team of spadefoot monitors surveyed areas throughout the Connecticut River Valley to identify donor populations to collect eggs and tadpoles for transfer to the Southwick WMA pools. No adults were collected for this carefully managed introduction in order to avoid harm to the donor population.

Through 2015 and 2016, Massachusetts was experiencing a multiyear drought. The secretive animals remained in their underground burrows for days to weeks at a time, emerging only to feed when nighttime temperature and moisture were suitable. Then, in late March and early April 2017, frequent and prolonged rains finally came and filled traditional spadefoot breeding pools. Temperatures were too cold for breeding at the time, but a 2-day heatwave in mid-April soon changed that. Low-pitched, raucous squawks—like the calls of juvenile crows—filled the night air as the spadefoots emerged in unison. They gathered by the dozens at local breeding pools scattered across parts of Massachusetts. Fortunately, their effort at our most preferred donor site was substantial, presenting the first opportunity to introduce eggs to the constructed pools at Southwick WMA.

Some eggs were transferred directly to the pools, while others were held for captive rearing (commonly termed headstarting) at Bristol County Agricultural High School to boost survival to later developmental stages. The donor pool dried rapidly in the absence of additional, heavy rains, and so most of its spadefoot tadpoles were transferred to Southwick WMA while others were headstarted at MassWildlife. Headstarted animals (mature tadpoles and young froglets) were ultimately released to both the donor site and to Southwick WMA later in the spring.

During a monitoring visit in September, MassWildlife biologists observed two plump, juvenile spadefoots at Southwick WMA. This confirmed that some of the introduced animals had survived, and they were growing at an exceptional rate. With this early sign of success, additional introductions of Eastern Spadefoot eggs, tadpoles, and headstarted froglets to Southwick WMA are planned for 2018 and beyond.

Learn more about the Eastern Spadefoot.

Division of Fisheries and Wildlife 

MassWildlife is responsible for the conservation of freshwater fish and wildlife in the Commonwealth, including endangered plants and animals. MassWildlife restores, protects, and manages land for wildlife to thrive and for people to enjoy.

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